Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Medieval Civilization:
 Medieval Civilization

 What The Middle Ages Started With

 Addition Of Christianity

 German Conquest And The Fall Of Rome

 What The Germans Added

 Formation Of The Papacy

 The Franks And Charlemagne

 After Charlemagne

 Feudal System

 The Empire And The Papacy

 Read More Articles About: Medieval Civilization

What The Germans Added

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IN passing to the special consideration of the additions which the Germans made to the ancient civilization it is necessary to give the first place to what was probably their most valuable contribution, the Germans them-selves. This implies not merely that the governments which they set up in the place of the Roman were, in very many cases, an improvement upon the practical anarchy which passed under the name of the empire, and a welcome relief to the provincials, as they were, but also that there was a more permanent influence introduced in the fact that they brought in a young, vigorous, and healthy race to form a considerable element in the population of every European state. It is possible that in some parts of the empire the number of new settlers was not large, and yet it has been said of each of the Latin-speaking countries that it contains districts where the German physical characteristics light hair and blue eyes still predominate among the inhabitants, and indicate a large Teutonic immigration. The amount of German blood which went to form the modern nations must have been considerable, for we need to add to the invading forces the large numbers settled in the empire earlier as slaves and soldiers. The German was, to be sure, a savage, and it may be that his bringing in brought in also greater ignorance and decline and " darkness " than would otherwise have been ; but this is not absolutely certain, and even if admitted, the results justify the cost. Possibly, as has been intimated, the Roman world might have re-covered its strength and entered upon a new age of production without their aid. But had it done so, even more successfully than seems at all probable, the product would have lacked the qualities added by the Germans. The settlement of the Teutonic tribes was not merely the introduction of a new set of ideas and institutions to combine with the old, it was also the introduction of fresh blood and youthful mind, the muscle and the brains which were in the future to do the larger share of the world's work.

Besides the addition of themselves they brought with them as a decided characteristic of the race, a very high idea of personal independence, of the value and importance of the individual man as compared with the state. This can be seen in the proud spirit of the individual warrior a characteristic of many barbarian races. It can be seen still more clearly in those crude systems of criminal justice out of which these tribes were just emerging in the migration period. They exhibit the injured man apparently never thinking that the public authority is the proper power to punish the wrong-doer, but taking the punishment into his own hands as the only natural resort in such a case. It can be seen again in the fact that when the state does begin to assume the right to punish crime, it cannot venture to inflict personal chastisement, or to interfere with the liberty of the freeman. It must limit itself to imposing money fines, part of which goes to the injured party as indicative of his rights in the case, and it can be seen finally in the democratic cast of all their earliest governments. The unit of the whole public life is the individual man, not the state.

We have seen in the third chapter how the early Christianity taught a closely related idea ; how it proclaimed certain rights and interests of the individual to be far higher and more important than any duties he could owe the state. How much the one set of these ideas reinforced the other it is impossible to say. We can trace their continued influence only by way of inference. Somewhere between the ancient days and the present the idea of the relation of the individual to the state has been transformed. In the ancient time the state was an end in and for itself far more than it has ever been in the modern. To the Greek or the Roman the state was everything, the individual comparatively nothing. His domestic and religious life, as well as his political, found their ultimate object in the state. Now, the state is regarded as a means rather than an end. Its object is thought to be to secure for the individual the fullest and freest development possible in a community life, and the state which secures this with the least governing and the least machinery is held to be the best state. Whether this view of the state is to be a permanent one or not, even if, as some vaguely expect, the modern state should be destined to give way in the end to some more highly organized form of common action than history has yet known, still the change which put the modern in the place of the ancient idea would remain one of the most important changes in the history of civilization, and the question of the reasons for it one of the most interesting questions. The natural influence of Christian teaching and German spirit working together would seem to be to lead to such a transformation. That they did actually do so is far easier to assert than to prove. Probably the most that can be said confidently is this. The idea of the independence and supreme worth of the individual, so strongly felt and expressed in the early medieval centuries passes almost wholly out of the consciousness of the later middle ages except partially upon the political side where a closely related idea which grew, in part, it seems likely, out of this earlier one finds expression in feudalism. But in general the individual ceases to be the primary element of society and is absorbed, not now in the state, but in the corporation, the guild, the commune, the order, the hierarchy. The revival of the older idea in modern times is to be traced with certainty only to two sources. One is that revolution of the whole intellectual stand-point of the middle ages which was wrought by the Renaissance and the Reformation, recovering Christian as well as classic ideas which had long been lost, emphasizing again the supreme worth of the individual and establishing the right of private judgment. The other is the gradual development of the primitive German institutions into modern free governments. These two together form most important sources of the renewal of the democratic spirit which is so characteristic of our age, and, with that, of the emphasis which we again lay on the individual man and his rights.'

Of the new elements introduced by the Germans, whose continued life and influence we can most clearly trace to our own time, the most important were political and institutional.

The Germans were passing at the time of their con tact with the Romans through a stage of political development through which the classic nations had passed long before. The political arrangements of the primitive Germans of Tacitus were in many ways very closely like those of the primitive Greeks of Homer. But in the case of the Germans the race possessed so solid and conservative a political character, and these primitive institutions had received such definiteness of form that they were able to survive for centuries the danger of absorption and annihilation which faced them in the more highly developed Roman institutions, and, through some channels at least, permanently to influence the public life of the world. And while the classic nations, starting from the same beginning, failed to construct successful and permanent free governments, but ended in a universal despotism in which such of the forms of free government as survived had lost all meaning, in the history of the Teutonic nations, on the contrary, the experience of absolute monarchy, through which the germs of liberty were destined to pass, did not destroy their life or more than temporarily check their growth.

It may be said in general that the Germans brought in the elements out of which the intervening centuries have developed modern free constitutional governments. But these elements are to be recognized as clearly democratic much more plainly in the Germany of Tacitus than in the states which were established on Roman soil. It is evident that the conquest exposed them to a double danger. In the first place, in those countries where the Germans settled down in the midst of a Roman population they were exposed to the example of the Roman government and to the influence of the Roman state machinery, important parts of which were often allowed to continue in operation at least for a time, both these tending to impress on the barbarian ruler the value of centralization and absolutism. The importance of this influence has been disputed by some scholars, but impartial investigation leaves no doubt that there was a strong tendency to increase the power of the king at the expense of the people due to the Roman example. In the second place, the influence of the conquest itself was in the same direction. It exposed the tribe to greater dangers than it had ever before experienced, it planted it in the midst of a conquered population more numerous than itself, it demanded that the whole power of the state should be wielded by a single will and to a single purpose. The tendency of dangerous crises in the life even of the freest nation is toward centralization. This result is seen everywhere in these new states, with especial clearness in the case of the Anglo-Saxons, where the first-mentioned cause the Roman example had no opportunity to work. The fact must therefore be distinctly recognized that the first development which these German institutions underwent was away from liberty and toward absolutism.

Of these original institutions three are of especial importance and interest in their bearing upon later times, and these are selected for specific notice.

First, the public assemblies. The early Germans had assemblies of two grades. The highest in grade was the assembly of all the freemen of the tribe, which we may call the tribal or national assembly. This possessed distinct legislative rights, like a market democracy, at least so much as a right of decision for or against important measures submitted to it by a smaller council of elders or chiefs. In it were elected the kings and the chiefs of the smaller districts, and it also acted on occasion as a supreme judicial tribunal for the hearing and decision of such cases as might be brought before it. It would seem as if this assembly would furnish a most promising be-ginning, which ought to grow into a free and national system of legislation. As a matter of fact it did not. The national assembly was one of the earliest victims of the centralizing tendency, and everywhere sank into a mere form or entirely disappeared. This was as true of England as of any continental state, and though it is possible that the smaller assembly of chiefs, the concilium principum, which accompanied the national assembly, remained through the successive changes of government until it grew into the House of Lords, even this is not perfectly certain. It is, however, for our present purpose, a matter of no importance whether it dici or not, for, whatever its origin, the assembly of notables under the Normau and early Angevin kings was no longer in any sense a public assembly, nor did it have in any true sense a representative character or any legislative power.

To find the real origin of the modern representative system we must turn to the assemblies of the second grade in the early German states. In these the freemen of the smaller locality the Hundred or Canton came together in a public meeting which possessed no doubt legislative power over matters purely local, but whose most important function seems to have been judicial a local court, presided over by a chief who suggested and announced the verdict, which, however, derived its validity from the decision of the assembly, or, in later times, of a number of their body appointed to act for the whole.

These local courts, probably, as has been suggested, because of the comparatively restricted character of the powers which they possessed, were destined to a long life. On the continent they lasted until the very end of the middle ages, when they were generally overthrown by the introduction of the Roman law, toc highly scientific for their simple methods. In England. they lasted until they furnished the model, and probably the suggestion, for a far more important institution the House of Commons. How many grades of these local courts there were on the continent below the national assembly is a matter of dispute. In England there was clearly a series of three. The lowest was the township assembly, concerned only with matters of very slight importance and surviving still in the English vestry meeting and the New England town-meeting.' Above this was the hundred's court formed upon a distinctly representative principle, the assembly being composed, together with certain other men, of four representatives sent from each town-ship. Then, third, the tribal assembly of the original little settlement, or, the small kingdom of the early con-quest, seems to have survived when this kingdom was swallowed tip in a larger one, and to have originated a new grade in the hierarchy of assemblies, the county assembly or shire court. At any rate, whatever may have been its origin, and whatever may be the final decision of the vigorously disputed question, whether in the Frankish state there were any assemblies or courts for the counties distinct from the courts of the hundreds, it is certain that courts of this grade came into existence in England and were of the utmost importance there. In them, too, the representative principle was distinctly ex-pressed, each township of the shire being represented, as in the hundred's court, by four chosen representatives. These courts, also, pass essentially unchanged through the English feudal and absolutest period, maintaining local self-government and preserving more of the primitive freedom than survived elsewhere. We shall see more in detail, at a later point, how the representative principle originating in them is transferred to the national legislature, creating our modern national representative system the most important single contribution to the machinery of government made in historic times, with the possible exception of federal government.

The first of the special political elements brought in by the Germans is, then, the public assembly, the original germ of our modern free legislatures ; but this germ is to be found in their local, not in their national assemblies.

The second one of these special elements to be noticed is the elective monarchy. The freemen of all the early German tribes clearly possessed the right of electing their king. In all these tribes, however, the tendency was just as clearly toward the establishment of hereditary succession. It depended entirely upon the special circumstances of each case whether the forms of an election, preserved everywhere for a considerable time, sank into mere forms without meaning, and finally out of sight, or whether they retained life and meaning and became recognized as constitutional.

In Germany an accidental circumstance the fact that no dynasty lasted for more than three or four generations kept alive the principle of election until it resulted in a real elective monarchy; but, owing to another circumstance the loss on the part of the royal power itself of all control over the state this fact had no valuable results for liberty. In France an accidental circumstance again the fact that for more than three hundred years after the election of the Capetian family to the throne, it never lacked a direct male heir, had the opposite result, and the principle of election passed entirely out of sight and the monarchy became strictly hereditary. In England the monarchy also became, in time, strictly hereditary. But there, before the principle of election had passed entirely out of the public consciousness, a series of depositions and of disputed successions revived it, or what is far more important, its corollary, the right of the people to depose an unsatisfactory king and put another in his place. This idea seems to have been recognized by some at least in the contest for the crown between Stephen and Matilda, toward the middle of the twelfth century ; far less consciously in the deposition of Edward II. in 1327 ; more clearly in the case of Richard II. in 1399, and at the end of the Yorkist line in 1485, in both these cases the rightful heirs being set aside in favor of others. It came to the fullest consciousness and the clearest expression in the Revolution of 1688, and in the accession of the House of Hanover in 1715. These cases established definitely the principle that the sovereign obtains his right to rule from the consent of the people ; that the title to the throne is elective a principle which has been distinctly recognized by the princes of the House of Hanover. It will be seen at once that this is a vitally important principle if a monarchy is to be transformed into what is virtually a republican government. With-out the clear recognition of this principle, explicitly or implicitly, by the reigning sovereign, it would be impossible to continue a historic line of kings at the head of a republic, the object which is sought, and more or less completely secured, by all modern constitutional monarchies.'

In this case, again, the second of the original elements of free government among the Germans the elective monarchy was developed into a fundamental principle of modern constitutions by the Anglo-Saxons.

The third element of free government originating with the Germans was an independent or self-developing systerm of law. The law systems of all the Germans at the time of the invasion were very crude both in the law it-self and in the method of its enforcement, but they were all characterized alike by this fact, that the law was ascertained, defined, and declared by the courts, or, in other words, since the courts were public assemblies, by the people themselves. It follows necessarily from this that the courts, by establishing precedents, by declaring customs which had grown up in the community to have the force of law, and by applying the common judgment and sense of justice of the people to new cases, as they arose, were constantly enlarging the body of the law, and building up by a natural process of growth a great body of customary or common law unwritten law. The importance of this practice as an element of liberty does not consist in the law itself which is created in this way. That is apt to be unscientific and experimental. It consists in the fact that the law is not imposed upon the people by a power outside itself, and declared and en-forced by a series of irresponsible agents, but that the people themselves make it and also interpret, modify, and enforce it. This practice continued in vigorous life in the continental states much longer than any other of the specific institutions mentioned, and, together with the popular courts which gave it expression, preserved some remains of freedom long after it had entirely disappeared from every other part of the state. In the last part of the middle ages the adoption of the Roman law, and the system of scientific jurisprudence which that law fostered, practically destroyed on the Continent these self-developing bodies of law.' When the control of the courts passed into the hands of men trained to regard the Roman law as their only model, and when the Roman-law maxim, Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorern was adopted by the newly formed nations, and became a native maxim, as in the French, Si veut le roi, si veut la loi, then the control of the people over the law had ceased, and all law-making power had been centred in the sovereign. In England this revolution never took place. The common law has continued to develop by the same natural process through every generation of its history, and, however seriously at any point the native principles may have been modified by the introduction of foreign ideas and doctrines of law, such modification has never been of a character to check for a moment the natural growth of the common law, or to deprive it of its independence of the executive and legislative branches of government, which are the vitally important points.' It is at this moment, in every quarter of the Anglo-Saxon world, and in the midst of a thousand new conditions of social and geographical environment, as vigorous and creative a part of the nation's life as ever in the past, and one of the most important processes of our free self-government.1 In the United States the existence of a writ-ten constitution, as fundamental law, has led to a most important and valuable extension of this principle in the power which the courts have assumed, without expressed sanction, to declare a law regularly passed by the national legislature unconstitutional and therefore null and void. This practice will also be adopted, almost of necessity, by British courts in dealing with acts passed by an Irish Parliament if one should be established by an imperial statute limiting its legislative powers.

These three institutions, though by no means covering every detail which might be mentioned, are the most important political elements brought into modern civilization by the German race. The great system of free self-government which the Anglo-Saxons have built upon this foundation is making the conquest of the world. After much experimenting in other directions under the lead of the French, all the modern nations which have adopted constitutional government are returning to the Anglo-Saxon model as expressed either in England or in the United States, making such modifications of type as local necessities, or local prejudices not yet over-come, may require. That the political future of the world belongs to Anglo-Saxon institutions seems assured.

One other specific institution of the early Germans deserves a passing notice in this chapter because of its later influence. That is the comitatus the band of young warriors who were bound by an especially strong bond of fidelity to the service of a chief, were maintained by him, and followed him to war. It was formerly sup-posed that this institution gave rise to the feudal system. The German chief, it was thought, taking the lands which fell to him in the conquest, divided them among the members of his comitatus, and, because they remained under the same bond of fidelity to him, as their lord, after they had received their land, the feudal system was created at once. But great institutions like feudalism are never struck out at a single blow, and this theory of its origin was long ago abandoned by continental scholars though living on in English books. We shall find, later on, an important influence which the comitatus exercised upon feudalism in some points of detail, but it is not one of the sources from which the larger institutional features of the feudal system arose.

Much has also been written upon the influence of certain special ideas held by the early Germans, such as their theological and ethical ideas and their high regard for woman, much more indeed than the facts will warrant.

That they had a high respect for woman as compared with that of the classic world of their time is undoubted, but it does not seem to have been higher than that of Aryan races in general the classical nations themselves when in the same stage of civilization, and in general it is sufficient to refer to what has been said on the subject in the chapter on the influence of Christianity.

Of the influence of their ethical notions and of their somewhat lofty conception of God, the most that can be affirmed with any certainty is, that they had ideas which would make the Christian teachings seem not altogether foreign to them, and which very possibly made easy the transition to Christianity. Even such a statement as this is, however, an inference from the apparent nature of the case, rather than from the recorded facts, and that these ideas led them to any more perfect understanding of Christianity, or to any more sympathetic development of it, than would have been the case without them, is a theory without historical support.

The coming in of the Germans brought face to face the four chief elements of our civilization : the Greek with its art and science, much of it for the time forgotten ; the Roman with its political institutions and legal ideas, and furnishing the empire as the common ground upon which all stood; the Christian with its religious and moral ideas ; and the German with other political and legal ideas, and with a reinforcement of fresh blood and life. By the end of the sixth century these all existed side by side in the nominal Roman empire. It was the work of the remaining centuries of the middle ages to unite them into a single organic whole the groundwork of modern civilization.

But the introduction of the last element, the Germans, was a conquest--a conquest rendered possible by the inability of the old civilization any longer to defend itself against their attack. It is one of the miracles of history that such a conquest should have occurred, the violent occupation of the empire by the invasion of an inferior race, with so little destruction of civilization, with so complete an absorption, in the end, of the conqueror by the conquered. It must be possible to point out some reasons why the conquest of the ancient world by the Germans was so little what was to be expected.

In a single word, the reason is to be found in the impression which the world they had conquered made upon the Germans. They conquered it, and they treated it as a conquered world. They destroyed and plundered what they pleased, and it was not a little. They, took possession of the land and they set up their own tribal governments in place of the Roman. And yet they recognized, in a way, even the worst of them, their inferiority to the people they had overcome. They found upon every side of them evidences of a command over nature such as they had never acquired : cities, buildings, roads, bridges, and ships ; wealth and art, skill in mechanics and skill in government, the like of which they had never known ; ideas firmly held that the Roman system of things was divinely ordained and eternal ; a church strongly organized and with an imposing ceremonial, officered by venerable and saintly men, and speaking with an overpowering positiveness and an awful authority that did not yield before the strongest barbarian king. The impression which these things made upon the mind of the German must have been profound. In no other way can the result be accounted for. Their conquest was a physical conquest, and as a physical conquest it was complete, but it scarcely went farther. In government and law there was little change for the 'Roman ; in religion and language, none at all. Other things, schools and commercial arrangements for instance, the Germans would have been glad to maintain at the Roman level if they had known how. Half unconsciously they adopted the belief in the divinely founded and eternal empire, and in a vague way recognized its continuance after they had overthrown it. As time went on, and they identified themselves more closely still with the people, ideas, and institutions of the old civilization, their belief in the permanence of the empire became more clear, and furnished the foundation for the Roman empire of Charlemagne, and for the Holy Roman empire to which that led, a strong influence for unity in the most chaotic portion of medieval history.

If from one point of view, it seems strange that so much that was Roman remained, looked at from the side of the superiority of the ancient civilization and the evident impression which it made upon the Germans, it seems strange, in turn, that so much that was German survived. It is one of the most fundamental facts of the history of civilization that this was a union upon fairly equal terms of German and Roman to form a new whole and to begin a new progress.

Having now brought together all the chief elements of medieval history, we have next to take up the first great movement which properly belongs to that history itself the transformation of the primitive Christian organization into a monarchical church.

Home | More Articles | Email: